Best known for her roles in “Avatar,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Star Trek,” actor Zoe Saldana certainly seems out of this world. But in real life, she's fighting the lack of diversity in mainstream media through BESE, her media company. (Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)
Best known for her roles in “Avatar,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Star Trek,” actor Zoe Saldana certainly seems out of this world. But in real life, she’s fighting the lack of diversity in mainstream media through BESE, her media company. (Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

Best known for her roles in “Avatar,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Star Trek,” actor Zoe Saldana certainly seems out of this world. But as a keynote speaker at Austin’s South by Southwest festival this March, Saldana the entrepreneur spoke about the down-to-earth importance of positive role models and discussed how her startup, BESE (pronounced “bee-say”) aims to combat a real-life problem: the lack of diversity in mainstream media.

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“There’s a growing population that’s predominantly of Latinx origin that’s massively mischaracterized right now, especially with the current government,” Saldana told her audience. “We need to add that balance, we have to tell stories that are universal, but stories that are positive [and] that cultivate aspiration.”

Founded by Saldana and fellow entrepreneur Daniel Batista in 2017, BESE produces stories in video, podcast and editorial formats targeted toward the millennial and Generation Z Latin American community.  The name is derived from the verb “to be” in English (“be”) and in Spanish (“se”), meaning to exist and know yourself. The brand’s central focus is on cultural identity, with a stated mission of amplifying the voices of Latin Americans who are shaping society today.

“We’re not a media platform that’s into sensationalism or negative angles to news,” Saldana said. “Instead, the goal is to build trust. We wanted to uncover all those giants in our American Latinx community that go everyday completely unseen, that our children need to know about.”

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Shining a Light on Latinx

Saldana and many others in the Latinx community contest that Latin Americans continue to be marginalized as the “Davids” to America’s “Goliaths.” Despite driving over half of the U.S. population growth, and contributing to the economy in the form of small business ownership, Latinos remain relatively overshadowed by other demographics in media. According to recent reports, Latinos constitute approximately 18 percent of the country’s population but represent less than six percent of speaking roles in the media, many of which portray Latinos in a negative light.

“When you turn on your TV, we’re still the best friends, either the apathetic character or the sympathetic character, [but] there’s no compassionate portrayals of us where we’re seen as giants,” Saldana said. “We’re either victims or martyrs.” In recent years, after Saldana got married and had children, she began thinking:  “I’m not a victim or a martyr, I’m the in-between, I’m the professional, I’m the American with a dream, I’m the American who wants a piece of American pie, and where is that? Where are my American stories with my face on it?”

As a platform meant for Latinx users and content creators, BESE doesn’t necessarily exclude stories of other ethnicities. Rather, the brand aims to be an all-inclusive community for anyone who’s ever felt misrepresented.

“Some 59% of our audience for BESE are of Latinx origin, but the rest of them are of everything else and it makes me really happy,” Saldana said. “I don’t just want to create a community just for me, I want to create one for us, and when I say the word ‘us,’ I mean everyone.”

[Related: Giving Latinos the Voice They Lack]

Telling Stories That Haven’t Been Told

Out of the 150 stories or so BESE has told so far, many feature “hidden figuras” or lesser known heroes in history. Some of these include Bill Melendez, a Mexican-American animator who illustrated the Peanuts comic strip; Maria Montez, a Dominican actress in the 1940s who was considered the queen of technicolor; Jovita Idar, a teacher and journalist in the early 1900s who championed rights of Mexican-Americans in Texas; and Jose Castellanos, a Salvadoran diplomat during World War II who gave at least 10,000 Jews a Salvadoran citizenship to allow them to escape Nazi persecution. If Oskar Schindler gets his own historical epic movie, shouldn’t Jose Castellanos get one too?

These figures, however, are only the tip of the iceberg, according to BESE. Along with its “Hidden Figuras” segment, BESE also features up-and-coming Latinx musicians in its series “Local Noise,” underrepresented athletes in competitive sports in “Point X Point,” ethnic traditions of multicultural communities in “Folklore,” and more.

Now, at BESE’s one-year anniversary, Saldana says she wants to grow by forge partnerships with other brands in a way that preserves BESE’s integrity and feels genuine to its audience.

The trouble is, it’s hard to find partners that recognize BESE’s potential and don’t just see it as an “ethnic” brand. “It is challenging to get brands to really look at a platform like BESE and assist it, and partner with it so that it can scale,” Saldana said. “We get really excited when we have that kind of positive reception from brands that are diversifying their leadership roles and they get it, and they’re curious, and they’re asking questions.”

‘Diversify Your Content’

Moving forward, Saldana also stresses the educational power of storytelling — that the stories of BESE both serve as entertainment for the public and as tools for increasing awareness and societal growth.

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“We can’t just be a platform that tells great stories while we have a population that is suffering,” she said. “My mission in 2019 is to do that through podcasts, through hosted series, and by collaborating with journalists that need a platform that can amplify their conversations.”

When asked by an event host about what call-to-action BESE might incite, Saldana had some choice words for others involved in the media business.

“Diversify your content. Try to look at the American demographic…and then instead of having an 80/20 or 90/10 approach, have a 60/40. Don’t be the last to jump on a trend. Be the first to set it.”

And Saldana doesn’t preach anything her company doesn’t follow.

“We have a staff of ten, and only two are male. So all the content that you have seen, it’s been built predominantly by women: women DPs, women producers, women writers, women editors. BESE is a company that drinks our own Kool Aid,” she said. “We’re not just asking you to drink it, but we’re drinking it as well. And we like it.”